The Kremlin announced it will expel 60 American diplomats and close the American Consulate in St. Petersburg as part of a widely anticipated diplomatic reprisal for the expulsion of Russian diplomats from two dozen Western countries in response to the poisoning of a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom earlier this month. The Russian government denies it was behind the March 4 poison attack in Salisbury, England, that has left Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, in the hospital.
“As for the other countries, everything will also be symmetrical in terms of the number of people from their diplomatic missions who will be leaving Russia,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. The U.S. expelled 60 Russian diplomats and closed the country’s Seattle consulate earlier this week. “The message that is being sent is you cannot use a military-grade nerve agent on the streets of Salisbury against a British citizen and his daughter without a response,” U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman said.
This latest diplomatic squabble with Moscow began with British Prime Minister Theresa May’s expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats believed to be intelligence agents in response to the poisoning on British soil that the U.K. has pinned on Russia. Russia has flooded the field with alternate theories to deflect blame, including conjuring the run-up to the Iraq war and American and British intelligence failures as evidence that the British evidence fingering Russia can’t be trusted. “Nobody asked for some additional material on weapons of mass destruction, which Saddam Hussein was accused of having and using,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said. “Nobody asked for more evidence. They just trusted the U.S. and Great Britain, and they were betrayed.” The British government says the substance used in the attack was one of a group of nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union called Novichok. More than 20 countries followed the U.K.’s lead, sending more than 150 Russian officials back home. Russia has already matched U.K.’s expulsions, ordering 23 British officials to leave the country; Lavrov said Russia plans to mirror this coordinated diplomatic action and will send a similar number of foreign diplomats packing.